Chip Hale played in three NCAA tournaments at Arizona in the mid-1980s, going to the College World Series twice and winning a national title along the way. But Monday provided him a unique experience: his first selection show, and all the stress that comes with it.
“When I was in school, it wasn’t like that,” he said. “We just were told where we were going by Coach (Jerry) Kindall, someone called him. Back then you kind of knew you were in, where it’s a little different now, with all the social media stuff that gives you a little bit more more anxiety.”
The Wildcats are headed to Coral Gables, Fla. for NCAA regionals, opening against Ole Miss on Friday. They’ll have to get past the Rebels, whom they beat in last year’s Super Regionals to make the College World Series, as well as Canisius and No. 6 national seed Miami in order to advance to the next round.
Hale said it became “a little bit nerve-wracking” when 12 of 16 regional sites had been announced and Arizona’s name hadn’t been called, but once the team saw its name on the screen—and who it would be playing first—the celebration began.
Arizona (37-23) heads to Coral Gables having gone 2-2 at the inaugural Pac-12 Tournament, reaching the tourney semifinals where it fell 5-4 to eventual champ (and No. 2 national seed) Stanford. Hale believes that event served as a test run for the regional, which like the Pac-12 tourney is double-elimination, as did the Wildcats’ overall schedule.
Including the Pac-12 tourney, Arizona played nine teams in the 64-team NCAA field and went 13-12 against those squads. That includes wins over Oklahoma and Texas Tech at a tournament in Texas in February and victories over Grand Canyon and Texas State.
Almost half of Arizona’s 60 games this season have been away from Hi Corbett Field, and it has posted a 17-12 mark with 12 true road victories.
“We’ve been the Road Warriors this year,” Hale said. “This is the probably the most this school has traveled in a long time. We’ve had a lot of road trips, whether it’s bussing to New Mexico State, flying out to Omaha to play Creighton, so we’re definitely battle-tested on the road.”
Arizona gets a familiar foe in Ole Miss, at least on the offensive side. The Rebels (32-22) regularly play eight of the nine batters who started Game 3 of the Super Regional in Tucson last June, but their pitching is vastly different. Two of their weekend starters are new, as are several relievers, though as a staff they still strike out 10.66 per nine innings (Arizona fans 7.54 per nine).
Still, Hale said pitching coach Dave Lawn will need to study film of Ole Miss before deciding if Arizona goes with right-hander TJ Nichols or lefty Garrett Irvin to start the first game. Irvin allowed seven runs in 1.1 innings against the Rebels last year, and also gave up seven runs in his last start against Stanford, while Nichols is coming off a solid 6-inning outing against ASU in an elimination game.
The outlook on slugger Chase Davis has vastly improved since he injured his left (throwing) shoulder making a catch in the first inning of Saturday’s loss to Stanford, causing him to leave the game. Hale said Davis swung “nice and easy” on Monday.
“The pain is not as bad as we thought it was going to be today, so unless he takes another blow to it, there’s not really any worry of him injuring it again,” said Hale, adding that if Davis is able to throw will determine if he plays left field like normal or serves as the DH. “As long as we can have his bat in the lineup, that’s a good thing for us.”
This will be Arizona’s second postseason trip to Coral Gables, losing in three games to Miami in a Super Regional in 2008. The Wildcats are 5-7 all-time against the Hurricanes, most recently beating them 5-1 in the first game of the 2016 College World Series.
Not surprisingly, weather could be a factor in south Florida. There’s a 60 percent chance of thunderstorms on Friday, which may explain why there’s a 7-hour gap between game start times.
“Typical Miami weather,” Hale said.